Life at Manzanar War Relocation Center

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, led the United States into World War II. It radically changed the lives of more than 110,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry living in the United States.

By Manzanar National Historic Site, Museum Management Program, U.S. National Park Service

In February, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to establish Military Areas and to remove from those areas anyone who might be a threat to the war effort. Without due process, the government gave everyone of Japanese ancestry living on the West coast only days to decide what to do with their houses, farms, businesses, and other possessions. Most families sold their belongings at a significant loss.

Members of the Mochida family awaiting evacuation bus. (1842) by Dorothea Lange, Photographer, Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the War Relocation AuthorityManzanar National Historic Site, Museum Management Program, U.S. National Park Service

By U.S. Government order, many like the Mochida family left their former lives behind. In the preceding chaotic weeks, they had stored, burned, sold or abandoned personal possessions, farms, homes and businesses in preparation for the trip to Assembly Centers. 

In 1942 the U.S. Army leased 6,200 acres at Manzanar from the city of Los Angeles to build and operate a War Relocation Center for Japanese Americans. Manzanar’s remote location, water resources and agricultural history made it suitable for such a purpose. Manzanar was one of ten confinement camps, or War Relocation Centers. In addition, Japanese Americans were housed in temporary Assembly Centers, Department of Justice camps, and other facilities.

Storage BasketManzanar National Historic Site, Museum Management Program, U.S. National Park Service

Storage Basket

Fearing that her heirloom kimono would be confiscated after the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941,  Eiko Yamadacut it up, hid the silk remnants in this basket, and had it shipped with other items to Manzanar. The original shipping tags with the family number 2811 are attached. 

Mt. Williamson and the Manzanar Barracks (1945) by F.M. KumanoManzanar National Historic Site, Museum Management Program, U.S. National Park Service

"The first morning in Manzanar when I woke up and saw what Manzanar looked like, I just cried. And then I saw the high Sierra mountains, just like my native country’s mountain, and I just cried, that’s all."
- Haruko Niwa, Manzanar internee

Manzanar War Relocation Center Watch Tower (2008)Manzanar National Historic Site, Museum Management Program, U.S. National Park Service

The 500-acre housing section was surrounded by barbed wire and eight guard towers staffed by military police with searchlights and guns. By September 1942, more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were crowded into 504 barracks organized into 36 blocks. 

Most adults worked, maintaining and operating the camp. Children and many adults attended school. The barracks had no cooking facilities. That meant that internees had to line up three times a day, in any kind of weather, to eat at their block mess hall.

Childs Dressing TableManzanar National Historic Site, Museum Management Program, U.S. National Park Service

Internees reused wood from fruit and packing crates to build furniture. To provide work opportunities for those with manual skills, the War Relocation Authority [WRA] established both a clothing and furniture factory.

Bookcase by Made by Yoshihisa YamanakaManzanar National Historic Site, Museum Management Program, U.S. National Park Service

Bookcase made by Yoshihisa Yamanaka

Some people brought books but there were also several libraries in camp. The Manzanar Library expanded to include a collection of 24,000 volumes (20,000 volumes were donated by other libraries), and a periodical subscription of 157 magazines. 

Japanese Americans endured many changes and indignities. However, a great number attempted to make the best of a bad situation. The War Relocation Authority [WRA], the civilian agency that administered the camp, formed an advisory council of internee-elected block managers. Internees with the support of the WRA established churches, temples, and boys and girls clubs. They developed sports, music, dance, and other recreational programs.

Baseball game, Manzanar Relocation Center, Calif. (1943) by Ansel Adams, Photographer, Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs DivisionManzanar National Historic Site, Museum Management Program, U.S. National Park Service

Despite working in camp or attending school, many Japanese Americans found time to join clubs and play sports. Children and adults participated in a variety of games and sports.

Baseball Glove Baseball Glove, Original Source: Manzanar Museum Exhibit
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Baseball Home Plate, Original Source: Manzanar Museum Exhibit
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Playing and watching baseball was so popular that Manzanar supported not just baseball teams, but leagues of multiple teams.

Class Ring (1944)Original Source: Manzanar National Historic Site Museum Exhibit, National Park Service Museum Management Program

In spite of the undeniable fact of life in camp, people desired a "normal" high school experience, with diplomas, caps and gowns, and class rings.

Relocation Papers (1945)Original Source: Manzanar National Historic Site Museum Exhibit, National Park Service Museum Management Program

A total of 11,070 Japanese Americans came through Manzanar. From a peak of 10,046 in September 1942, the population dwindled to 6,000 by 1944. The last few hundred internees left in November 1945, three months after the war ended. Many of them had spent three-and-a-half years 

From the closing of camp in 1945, to the first pilgrimage in 1969, Manzanar lay largely forgotten. However beginning in the 1970s, Japanese Americans and others worked for decades to insure that Manzanar would be preserved so that all Americans could learn this important part of our shared history.

On March 3, 1992 Congress established Manzanar National Historic Site, entrusting the National Park Service to preserve the site and tell its stories.

Manzanar Monument by National Park ServiceManzanar National Historic Site, Museum Management Program, U.S. National Park Service

Manzanar Cemetery Monument


For more than six decades, the large concrete monument in the Manzanar cemetery has memorialized those who died here. The monument’s Japanese Kanji characters read, “Soul Consoling Tower” on the front and “Erected by the Manzanar Japanese, August 1943” on the back.


Remembering Manzanar Documentary

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